"A Holiday Feast, Vol. VIII"

Hungry for Music

THE LATEST SEASONAL compilation from Hungry for Music, the Washington-based organization that helps connect music with those in need, starts off with the sort of bare-trees gloom that's both gorgeous and unsettling.

Which is not a bad thing. On the contrary, the opening track, "Fall, Leaves, Fall," is an ambitious and stirring undertaking by Jennifer Cutting's Ocean Orchestra, featuring a guest vocal by Annie Haslam of the group Renaissance. Still, by the time the fourth track rolls along, you may well be reaching for the seasonal affective disorder therapy lamp. That track is "Crescent City Snow," on which Susan Cowsill pulls out all the emotional stops: It recalls not only Christmas past but New Orleans, the city that Cowsill, among others, fled while summer was still upon us. Detailed, evocative and unexpected, it's a powerful track that sets the roots-rock tone of much of the subsequent music.

Local heroes old and new are represented here. Timothy Bracken offers a kicky little retro-pop number, "Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight)," that barely exceeds two minutes; it's chased by the Rhodes Tavern Troubadours' similar-toned "Christmas Really Rocks," whose exuberant energy allows us to overlook the fact that "a new pair of Chucks" doesn't really rhyme. Some songs are covers, including the Brindley Brothers' gentle, acoustic-guitar-rich version of "In the Bleak Midwinter" and Joe Uehlein & the U-Liners' sincere, countrified rendering of Steve Earle's "Christmas in Washington." It's mostly local, mostly excellent and always for a good cause.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Appearing Saturday at Iota.